There are several reasons I think the internet is made of magic. First, I put out a call for a first lines contest and ended up with 263 comments on the post (some of them were duplicates, but there’s no way I’m counting to find out the exact number of entries). Regardless, that’s a darned impressive tally. Second, some of them were great. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when I posted the nine finalists, we got my favorite kind of response: anonymous snarkiness.
No seriously, I love the snarky. That the first comment asked me whether I chose the best or worst nine entries made me smile. Interestingly, someone else took the time to critique all nine entries. And while my first instinct was to rip them a new one, on a second read through, I saw that they actually made some thoughtful points, a few of which I didn’t disagree with. So I thought it would be fun/enlightening to go through and offer their critique along with my response to it as well as the entries themselves.
Before that, I want to take a quick moment to say thank you again to everyone who posted an entry. There were so many to choose from, and some really great ones slipped by. There are three in particular that I’m still mentally rotating with some of the entries I chose. A few commenters yesterday mentioned first lines that they admired: I’d love for you to share which you chose, and I’m sure the folks who penned them will be delighted to be discussed!
Now, on to the main event:
“The next time Hermes brought her back from the Underworld, Persephone wept tears of rage.”
Anonymous says: “Feels too close to pre-existing mythology.”
Jim says: Well…yeah. But I love this sentence. Not only am I a mythology fan, but I think there’s real room in the marketplace for more fiction based in Greek and Roman myths. Beyond that, the language feels nicely in tune with the subject matter but also feels effortless. And even if you know nothing about these gods, you’re left with a tantalizing question: why would someone feel rage for being taken out of hell?
“I saw her do it before she did.”
Anonymous wonders: “What does”it” refer to?”
Jim says: I don’t know. But I want to. This sentence hits a sweet spot between vague and specific that makes me ask a lot of questions. Not only what “it” is (which I assume will be answered in a later sentence), but whether this is about a main character with some sort of psychic ability, or if “she” may lack awareness of what she’s doing, in fact whether the speaker is seeing something that hasn’t happened or whether the subject is doing something without “seeing” it. It’s open ended without feeling clumsy, and it pushes me to want to know more.
“I’m pretty sure my sister had decided to become a pagan or a baptist or something before she offed herself so I don’t know why we were having a Catholic funeral.”
Anonymous feels: “”Had decided” versus “decided” and the second “or” with “something” dilutes the power of the sentence.”
Jim feels: I’m going to disagree completely on this one. The “or something” is completely crucial to the success of this sentence. It reinforces the narrator’s indifference to their sister making this seem that much more wrong in so many right ways. As for the “had,” I’d keep it. It feels right for the voice which is key in the first person. This line seems to be giving us a tough yet funny narrator who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. I most definitely want to hear more from him/her.
“Homo sapiens sluttiwhen drunkus. The subspecies to which I apparently belong.”
Anonymous asks: “Am I the only one missing a verb?”
Jim says: I’m not going to lie. This is the only entry that I almost edited ever so slightly before posting. I would much rather the period after “drunkus” was a colon, making this one sentence, or really: setting it up as a single definition. A verb? Totally unnecessary. I let the punctuation slide because I laughed out loud when I read it. A lot of people tried to be funny. This represents one of the few who succeeded.
“There are four Captain Stupendous fan clubs in Copperplate City, but ours is the only one that doesn’t suck.”
Anonymous states: “Better stated if it didn’t start with “There””
Jim says: Huh? I don’t understand that comment. This was a triumphant entry. I never doubted its place among the finalists because it captures a voice. I can pick out the genre AND identify a likely speaker in under 20 words. I’ve said before that you can teach writing but you can’t teach voice. Happily, this author doesn’t need any help.
“I will never be Lady Hakebourn.”
Anonymous offers: “Okay, but classic problem”
Jim says: True. But there’s so much room to re-explore stories that have been told in new and exciting ways. I dig this because it’s simple and straightforward but also sounds as though it will propel the reader right into the story. I saw a lot of entries that touched on a pet peeve of mine: weather writing. I’ve mentioned it before, and I know that people will be able to come up with great examples of when writing about the weather has been employed to brilliant effect. Trouble is, too many people use rainstorms and cloudy days and whistling wind to set the reader up, and 99 times out of 100, it serves only to delay the opening and prevent the reader from being immediately engaged. Here, the author starts with a blunt enough statement that I feel as though I know the next sentence will build on it. It’s not going to be, say: I will never be Lady Hakebourn. It was a sunny day in June, and a warm wind was stirring up a dustcloud by the barn…
“I wondered if the girl sitting at the front desk knew that things like me existed.”
Anonymous queries: “Extraneous “that,” what is the “thing”?”
Jim says: I’m going to go 50% with Anonymous on this. I would absolutely agree that “that” is extraneous. Put a mental line through it. And now it’s a brilliant sentence. What is the “thing?” That’s the whole point! We want to know! Is this being narrated by a supernatural creature? Or is the protagonist just so down on him/herself that they identify as less than human? Like the second finalist, I love that this so fabulously nestles in that nexus between specific and vague.
“I’ve had five husbands; none of them were mine.”
Anonymous votes! “The one I voted for, even though it sounds kind of cheesy like Mae West. Best of the bunch.”
Jim says: Whether or not I think it’s the best of the bunch, I’ll never tell…at least until next week. I can’t agree with calling it cheesy, though. It’s tantalizing and vampy and intentionally provocative. Perfect employment of a semi-colon (brava!), and if you don’t want more specifics, you have less prurient interests than me.
“Thomas Buttermore was your typical left-coast college kid, raised on Twinkies and white guilt.”
Anonymous said: “This sounds more like a right-coastie to me. I don’t know any educated Californians who eat Twinkies.”
Jim says: Okay, Anonymous: that’s damn funny. But I still love this line. It’s got a nice little wink and a nudge going. It walks up to the line of gimmickry without crossing over it. And Thomas Buttermore is SUCH a good name for a character.